paper-based accounting

i’ve just finished balancing the books for sunflower river for the first two months of operation: september and october.

i never thought i’d be doing accounting. on paper, with an abacus. or that it would be fun!

as soon as we all started putting money into projects, we realized that we needed to create a way to track how much money everyone was spending. none of us were up for actually managing a full set of books, so we settled on a spreadsheet that we would use to record receipts. this has worked fairly well, as we’re able to look at a breakdown of what kind of money we’re spending where.

after several months of doing this, i have become really interested in getting a deeper look at our finances. as a group, we get a lot of stuff done. looking around our land in the time we’ve been living here and i’m amazed at how transformed it is. with four people to work on projects, someone is always interested in doing something.

we’re able to play off each other’s energy and motivation, and someone is able to pick up a task when the last person is running out of energy to work on it. i’m very glad not to be doing this alone–or with one other person. having a group of people really enhances all of our skills. and encourages us to develop new ones.

i’m working on things i have never been interested in before, and i’m finding them fascinating. if i “own” a project, or have some stake in the outcome, my set of interests and motivations is vastly different than those things i’m interested in doing for money. i now have an outlet for all sorts of hobbies that i’d never have the chance to explore in the commercial world.

after thinking about the idea of keeping our books, i realized that doing them on paper would make the process interesting to me. i’d get a certain tactile feedback missing from my day job (computer programming) and get the ability to work with a vastly different set of tools.

these tools include an abacus, which i’ve been carrying around with the desire to use for many years, but lacked any project to apply it to. now it sits tucked inside the books, and learning how to use it has given me a profound disrespect for calculators. the abacus was designed to sum rows of numbers, so it really shines in this application. working with it is a pleasure in every way that working with a calculator isn’t. it’s fun.

balancing books for two months, even for an operation as small as sunflower river, has been a greater challenge than i thought it would. i’ve committed every sort of mistake one could: the obvious mistakes adding and subtracting, reading results off the abacus wrong, transposing two numbers as i transfer them between accounts, or just basic accounting errors!

i have resorted to keeping an electronic copy of the books on my computer, and a small program to check that they balance. i wrote it in frustration trying to find errors. i basically assumed that i’d be able to start doing this and everything would fall into place! it looks like i’ve got quite a bit of practice and a few habits to develop before i really feel comfortable with it.

the computer has really helped as a tool for finding errors, but the books really let you see the accounts in a way the computer files don’t. visually they are much nicer to look at and faster at looking up information. i would never have figured out certain concepts without working them out on paper. this part has surprised me the most, actually. i have always considered myself quite creative using a computer.

tonight i get to show my work to everyone else on the farm. i’ve prepared reports based on the kind of information *i* want to see, but i have no idea what everyone else wants out of this project. if anything! it will interest me to see what kinds of information people want and whether i’ve set the books up to answer them easily.

all the same, having a set of books showing profit and loss is only one tool for looking at how we are doing. i’m happy to have it, but i don’t want it to become the only way we see ourselves. to help prevent this, i’m looking now at paper-based planning and project management. i’d like to take the pages of projects we’ve brainstormed and put them into something that resembles a timeline. i have no idea whether we have 10 years of work or 20. i’d like something to show where we are going and what we’ve already accomplished. i’m particularly interested in recording what we’ve accomplished!

gantt charts existed long before personal computers, and i’m hoping to make the same kinds of discoveries doing them on paper as i explore another aspect of helping to manage daily operations at sunflower river.